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June 12, 2011

Downsides to Class Privilege? Hardly a Trend

Two recent news reports from very different parts of the world shared this theme: Affluence can have its drawbacks.

The first story was Michael Wines, “Execution in a Killing that Fanned Class Rancor,” which reports the execution of the son of an affluent Chinese businessman and military official. The son, Yoa Jiaxin, stabbed to death a “peasant” woman last fall. Jiaxin had struck the woman, who was cycling, with his vehicle, but she suffered only minor injuries. When Jiaxin realized that she was memorizing his license plate number, however, he attacked her with a knife.

Wines provides some class context for what happened next:

The crime had fanned deep public resentment against the “fu er dai,” the “rich second generation” of privileged families who are widely believed to commit misdeeds with impunity because of their wealth or connections.

Jiaxin later said that he “feared the woman, a poor peasant, would ‘be hard to deal with’ should she seek compensation for her injuries.”

But the victim’s husband fought back, refusing to accept the $6,900 a court ordered in compensation, “calling it ‘money stained with blood.’ He pledged to delay [his wife’s] burial until her killer was executed. A Shanghai lawyer later donated 540,000 renminbi, about $83,300, to her survivors after pledging to pay one renminbi for each message sent to the husband over Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter.”

Of course, these events, which some are calling “Internet-style mob rule,” raise serious concerns about the rule of law in China. One well-known blogger went as far as to invoke the Cultural Revolution, asserting that it was started in response to “this kind of leftist behavior.”

The second story illustrating the negative consequences of being a silver-spoon kid is more uplifting.  That's because the privileged kid in question, Chris Romer, son of former three-term Colorado governor Roy Romer, lost only a political race and not his life. Kirk Johnson reported this week on Michael B. Hancock’s victory over Romer in the Denver mayoral race. The story’s headline, "Message of Survival Won Denver Race for Mayor," suggests the role of class in the election’s outcome.  Here’s an excerpt detailing Hancock's background:

In running for mayor of Denver, a position he won overwhelmingly on Tuesday, Mr. Hancock told a family story so powerful, almost Dickensian in its poverty and hope — he and his twin sister were the youngest of 10 children raised by a single mother in Denver, part of that time in public housing — that the theme of adversity overcome became the heart of the campaign.

“We’ve come from difficult situations, we’ve faced serious challenges, but yet we’re still here,” said Mr. Hancock, 41, in an interview on Wednesday, talking about his seven surviving siblings, all of whom, he said, got involved as volunteers on his behalf, along with their mother, Scharlyne Hancock, 72, who made calls to voters for weeks.

Mr. Hancock will become Denver’s second African-American mayor (the first was Wellington Webb, elected in 1991), but supporters of both Hancock and Romer suggest that class played a greater role than race in the election’s outcome.  Johnson writes:

[B]ecause Mr. Romer and Mr. Hancock had few policy disagreements, supporters in both camps said the race inevitably turned on style, likeability and the power of a compelling story.

* * *

So, the Chinese story smacks of class warfare, while the  Denver story may simply affirm our attachment to the American Dream, rags-to-riches storyline.  Aspects of both stories are heartening in that working class and poor folks found access to power of different sorts.  I daresay, however, that “affluence as liability” is hardly a trend.  Nor do stories like Hancock’s election or “justice” for the Chinese peasant’s family suggest any real mitigation of the day-to-day hardship of deprivation and insecurity endured by the world’s working class and poor.

Cross-posted to and ClassCrits.

May 23, 2011

False Dichotomies of Class (Part II): Material versus Cultural

I responded last month to Martha McCluskey’s ClassCrits post, “Class as a Category of Vulnerability and Inequality.” In that initial response, I asserted that progressives need not choose between advocating mobility (the upward variety!) and advocating mobilization (collective action, labor rights) when it comes to class. I called the tension between mobilization and advocating class mobility a false dichotomy. This post takes up another issue that arose from the initial conversation: is class material or is it cultural? More precisely, will attending too much to the cultural aspects of class cause us to lose sight of its material aspects and consequences?

Of course, class has both material and cultural components—no doubt one of the reasons we increasingly refer to it as “socioeconomic status” or “SES.” I believe we must take both seriously in our efforts to empower the working class and poor. As with my prior post, I take the white working class as my starting point for several reasons. One is that I don’t hear socially conscious progressives pushing for a bifurcation that separates the material from the cultural with respect to minority groups. The other is that focusing on working class and poor whites permits us to see class more clearly. If we are looking at the group which enjoys the greatest racial privilege, we will not be tempted to collapse the class problem into the racism problem. We thus have a distinct opportunity to see just how powerful class disadvantage is. This tack it is not intended to discount the ways in which racial disadvantage exacerbates class disadvantage.

Thinking about class as culture implicates identity, and some have challenged class as a basis for identity, especially among “lower classes.” John Guillory wrote in 1993:

Acknowledging the existence of admirable and even heroic elements of working-class culture, the affirmation of lower-class identity is hardly compatible with a program for the abolition of want.

First, note that even Guillory implicitly links culture (“lower-class identity”) to the material (“abolition of want”). Second, while Guillory’s assertion may be somewhat true regarding those most materially deprived—the poorest among us—it overlooks the fact that many working-class whites are proud of that status. Jim Webb has observed, for example, that rednecks “don’t particularly care what others think of them. To them, the joke has always been on those who utter the insult.” If they suddenly got rich, they would not necessarily shed their cultural trappings. Nor would they shrug off all of the socialization and habits of their childhood and youth. Consider the “Beverly Hillbillies” as a vivid (if imperfect) illustration of the point. As many scholars have observed, class is inextricably linked to consumption, and consumption implicates not only money, but also spending priorities and taste.

Significantly, scholars have observed that culture varies more along racial and ethnic lines among the “lower” classes, while culture becomes more homogeneous as you work your way up the class hierarchy. In other words, the upper classes—regardless of race or ethnicity—tend to be more culturally like each other than they are like those of their same race or ethnicity who fall below them in the class hierarchy. This, too, is evidence of the symbiotic relationship between the cultural and the material. Given the link between being lower class on the one hand and manifesting cultural differences attributable to race/ethnicity on the other, denying cultural aspects of class for working class and poor whites seems tantamount to denying their personhood. It also overlooks a whole lot of sociological literature that sees cultural and material aspects of class as entangled.

In fact, a feedback loop exists between the material and the cultural in a range of contexts. June Carbone illustrates this in relation to family types in a forthcoming article.  Education is another context in which the two are intertwined: the working class are less likely to seek higher education and may scoff at its value in part because they know (or believe) they cannot afford it; they see it as beyond their reach.  Young people from working class families are thus far less likely than the children of professionals/the managerial class to get college degrees, which contributes to the financial insecurity of the former and keeps them in the working class.

Martha McCluskey’s post about cultural and material aspects of class arose from my discussion of Joan Williams’s new book, Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter.  The book is the subject of a colloquy in the Seattle University Law Review, in which Laura Kessler suggests that Williams pays too little attention to the material aspects and consequences of class by virtue of attending too much to its cultural aspects. To this, Williams responded as part of the colloquy:

Does a focus on how class is manifested as cultural difference entail overlooking the structuralist-materialist dimensions of class? Not at all: I am a material girl. But here’s the fascinating thing. Since 1970, Republicans have adopted policies that have radically increased inequality of incomes and eviscerated the economic stability of Americans who are neither rich nor poor with those very Americans’ political support.

* * *

All this is to say that, although I am a material girl, I recognize that we do not live by bread alone. Dignity and meaning-creation are equally important. So it is possible to connect with people whose economic interests do not in sync with yours if you connect with the symbols and the values that give dignity and meaning to their lives. That’s what the Republicans have done, and I propose that Democrats follow the same path.

To be clear, acknowledging culture does not let the state off the hook. In my earlier post, I discussed the role of the state regarding the increasing immobility of the working class. The state also plays roles in relation to a conception of class that attends to culture. One such role should be to prevent discrimination. Mitu Gulati and Devon Carbado have argued that anti-discrimination law should protect the "fifth black woman," the one with dreadlocks and African garb. They have asserted that whites are not faced with her dilemma—to pass or not—but they are wrong. Whites, too, must behave and dress in certain ways in order to "pass" successfully in settings where power (and wealth!) resides, e.g., elite universities, graduate and professional schools, large law firms, corporate America, middle and upper echelons of government.

Williams’s survey of ethnographic studies of the white working class suggests that turning away from working class habits, manners, and attitudes is necessary for class migrants to, well, migrate—to ascend the class ladder. They must do this in order to succeed and thereby to enhance their material well-being. Williams reports some comments made by class migrants during her book tour, noting that “they expressed anxiety that their migration in to the elite would leave them alienated from the values they grew up with and still hold dear.” At the same time, they worried that the working-class values engrained in them would inhibit “their ability to move up” and “attain professional success.” Williams was reporting there about class migrants of color, but it is high time we acknowledge that white class migrants are similarly hamstrung.

All of this points to the wrongheadedness of trying to bifurcate the cultural and material when we think about class. Clearly, each has a significant influence on the other, and we should reject a dichotomy between the two as false.

Cross posted to SALTLaw Blog and ClassCrits.

April 3, 2011

Widening Spatial Inequality and What to Do About It

Wealth and income inequality have been getting a lot of attention in recent months--at least in the New York Times. Op-Ed columnist Bob Herbert has been especially persistent about keeping the topic on readers' radar screens; read some of his columns here, here, here, and here. Paul Krugman, Frank Rich, and Robert Frank have had a say, too. Wealth inequality was also the subject of a "Room for Debate" feature a few weeks ago.

But geographic analysis of inequality has been little examined in the mainstream media until The Economist Magazine ran a couple of stories about uneven development and spatial inequality in the March 10, 2011 issue. The first "Internal affairs: The gap between rich and poor regions widened because of the recession," analyzes various nations' spatial inequality as measured by income and GDP. This analysis shows that Britain is the nation with the widest geography-based income gap: the per capita GDP is nine times greater in central London than it is in some Welsh regions. The smallest regional spreads, on the other hand, were in Italy and Germany, where "incomes in their most affluent areas are [nevertheless] almost three times those of the poorest." The United States falls at the British end of the spectrum, coming in second for inequality across regions among the nations studied. The District of Columbia, for example, is five times as rich as Mississippi. Further, the situation has worsened in the past few years.

Between 2007 and 2009 real GDP per head in the five richest states actually rose by an average of 2%, but fell by 3% in the five poorest. Both groups outperformed the national average, a fall of more than 4%. (The biggest slumps, both by more than 10%, were in Michigan, the eighth-poorest state, and in Nevada, site of the biggest house-price crash.)

The Economist notes that this is merely a continuation of a long-standing trend, and it attributes the phenomenon, in part, to the "dependence of poorer states on manufacturing, which has suffered big job cuts over the past decade." The feature concludes that "the income gap between richer and poorer areas is likely to widen further as government-spending cuts disproportionately hurt less prosperous parts."

One of the story's big attention getters is its comparison of GDP among regions and cities of different nations.

[O]ver a quarter of regions in Britain and Italy and one-tenth of those in Germany will this year have a lower GDP per head than the municipality of Shanghai. All the American states remain richer, but Shanghai looks set to overtake Mississippi by 2015; within ten years half of all the states, including Florida, Michigan and Ohio, could have a GDP per head lower than Shanghai and Beijing.

If the comparison were at the scale of the county rather than that of the state, these Chinese cities would no doubt be shown well out-pacing our nation's persistent poverty counties.

The second Economist feature on spatial inequality, "Gaponomics," takes up the question of what should be done to respond to this problem, particularly in the context of Britain. Instead of investing in particular regions or giving tax breaks to "enterprise zones" in these downtrodden areas, The Economist offers this proposal:

[M]ake it easier for people to move. Given inherent gaps in regional productivity prospects, there is a case for boosting mobility from declining regions to prospering ones. In Britain the main problem is the fetish for home-ownership and high house prices in the south-east, partly the result of severe shortages of supply. Easing planning restrictions below the Watford Gap would be a better way of helping Britons than propping up the north.

As a ruralist, I am immediately suspicious of policies that would aggravate uneven development. Among other things, they ignore those who will remain immobile and inevitably left behind. They also ignore attachment to place as an aspect of the political economy of rural areas in particular.

This story's second proposal is far more palatable: invest in education because it results in "the single biggest reward" for the nation--even if northerners then move south with their enhanced human capital. (Regarding the latter, I am reminded of this book on the rural brain drain).

Back in the United States, a recent New York Times editorial echoes the second of these ideas in relation to New York's funding scheme for education. In "Rich District, Poor District," the editorial staff consider how two of the state's school districts will fare under the Cuomo budget: "Ilion in the economically depressed Mohawk Valley, and Syosset, a wealthy town in Long Island’s Nassau County." Needless to say, it's not a pretty picture. Here' a summary:

The cuts would scarcely affect wealthy districts that rely primarily on local taxes to support lavishly appointed schools. But they would be catastrophic for impoverished rural districts that have been starved of state aid for decades and are still reeling from cuts levied last year .... Already struggling to furnish even basic course offerings, the poorest districts would need to cannibalize themselves to keep the doors open and the lights on.

As the editors express it, the $1.1 million cut Ilion is being asked to take to its $25 million budget "would not even come to a rounding error in the state's richest districts," like Syosset, which is being asked to absorb only a $1.4 million cut to its $188 million budget. But the New York Times editors aren't just arguing that school funding should be more equitable because "it's the right thing to do," they make an argument grounded in economics: Depressed regions like that around Illion "stand[ ] little chance of attracting high-skill jobs if [their] schools are allowed to deteriorate."

Going back to The Economist articles for a moment, I noted that enhanced investment in education is one reason for the income convergence across Germany, even as spatial inequalities become more acute in other nations. The story describes "huge national and European Union funds for infrastructure, R&D and education, as well as the transfer of some manufacturing jobs from factories in the western states to the east." For some reason, Germany sees reasons to take care of its citizens where they are--not to create incentives for residents of the less affluent East to move West. I'd like to know more about those reasons because I suspect they go beyond a sentimental desire to permit people to stay where they are and the attractive orderliness of a more evenly populated. I am guessing these policies are based in part on economic calculations about the value of existing infrastructure and human capital in the historically deprived East. Better understanding those reasons might inform debates in the United States about why regional development and reducing spatial inequalities--not fueling them--makes good sense from myriad perspectives.

Some of my writings mapping the sociogeographic concept of spatial inequality onto legal conceptions of (in)equality are here, here, and here.

Cross-posted to, ClassCrits, and Legal Ruralism.